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Hamas' Hold on Palestinians : Why moderates on both sides need to save the negotiations

March 27, 1993

Israel's Likud Party, in a generational shift rare in that country's politics, has elected Benjamin Netanyahu, 44, as its new leader and, potentially, a future prime minister.

Netanyahu wasted no time going on the offensive against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, accusing the 71-year-old former general of weakness in the face of terrorism. A Likud government, he promised, would know how to deal with Palestinian violence. That assurance may have greater appeal today than it did last June, when voters brought back into power a Labor Party ready to seek accommodations with Palestinians and other Arabs.

The reason can be found in any day's headlines. The level of violence growing out of the Palestinian intifada has been escalating tragically. Since late December, when Israel expelled to Lebanon more than 400 Palestinians suspected of involvement with the radical Islamic movement Hamas, at least 74 Palestinians and 12 Israelis have been killed. Each death deepens hatreds and adds to the anxious sense of insecurity that grips both sides.

Palestinians say they won't return to the negotiating table until all the expellees are brought home. Rabin, who first said the expulsions could last until the end of 1994, now says all the men can return by the end of this year. The Palestinian delegation to the talks says this concession isn't enough. So the deadlock persists, intensifying frustrations all the more.

The winner in all this so far is Hamas, not only the bitter opponent of negotiations but an open advocate of Israel's destruction. As violence spreads and security concerns in Israel rise, Hamas' gain in influence among the Palestinians could find an ominous echo in gains by Israeli opponents of the negotiations.

The direct Arab-Israeli talks being held under U.S. auspices present an opportunity unique in this long conflict, one not likely to recur soon. But time for making progress is limited. Likud is already looking to new national elections before they are required in June, 1996. Saving the negotiations is going to require an assertion of political will by moderates on both sides. Without it, opponents of the talks may simply triumph by default.

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